SALEM — Oregon lawmakers learned Monday that a state-licensed child services provider had been flagged for problems 30 out of the last 36 months, even more frequently than the Portland foster care program Give Us This Day, which was the focus of a series of stories by the Willamette Week newspaper about a range of problems, from misuse of funds to child neglect.
According to testimony Monday, being flagged by the agency didn’t necessarily lead to any action being taken.
Willamette Week’s coverage, which prompted multiple legislative hearings, revealed that top Department of Human Services administrators ignored reports of problems at the program. The latest hearing was at the Senate Interim Committee On Human Services and Early Childhood, which met Monday to discuss potential legislation next year and other actions to address problems in the state’s foster care system.
Give Us This Day showed up on the Department of Human Services’ “RADAR list” for 26 of the last 36 months, according to information the agency provided in response to questions from state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis.
But another unidentified children’s service provider has been on the “RADAR list” more than 30 of the last 36 months. DHS appears to have used the “RADAR list” as an informational tool to alert top administrators to problems and potential media or political attention at DHS-licensed facilities.
The agency has not suspended, revoked or even denied the renewal of licenses for any problematic service providers during the last 36 months.
It’s unclear from the agency’s response to Gelser why the unnamed provider remained on the list so many months, but the criteria to get on the list include “high severity or high quantity of allegations,” a state licensing action such as suspension, political implications, potential media attention and “chronic non-compliance or ‘yo-yo’ compliance.”
The list covers all facilities the Department of Human Services licenses, including assisted living facilities and therapeutic boarding schools, and state licensing staff email the list on a monthly basis to the agency director, deputy directors, program director, communications director, the director of the Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigation, the long-term care ombudsman and the Legislative Office.
Lawyers for the state are reviewing whether the Department of Human Services can release the name of that unidentified provider and other information from the list, said department spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus. The EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group Capital Bureau and other news outlets have filed public records requests for the list or information on it.
Lois Day, the state’s child welfare director, said during a meeting of the Senate Interim Committee On Human Services and Early Childhood Monday that in retrospect, it is clear the agency has more information about foster care facilities than officials might have realized. At the same time, the RADAR list, one of the key information sources they did have, did not inspire a sense of urgency for the agency to stop placing children with the most problematic providers.
Day and other Department of Human Services administrators described a decentralized child welfare system, in which licensing, inspection, contracting and compliance workers aren’t necessarily communicating or even looking at the same information about the programs caring for kids.
Gelser said she had not understood the “complexity of organizational structure” and “dispersement of responsibility” at the department.
Gelser plans to introduce legislation next session to expand the state’s oversight of licensed foster care and other children’s service providers, and strengthen the definition of abuse and neglect that applies to them so it matches the existing standards for elderly and other people in state care. Currently, foster care only has to meet the lower child welfare standard of “minimally adequate,” the same standard that applies in family homes.
Gov. Kate Brown also made a surprise visit to the Senate Interim Committee On Human Services and Early Childhood on Monday to provide an update on an independent review of the agency, which Brown called for earlier this month. The governor also appointed state chief operating officer, Clyde Saiki, as interim director of the Department of Human Services, while the state conducts a national search for a permanent director since director Erinn Kelley-Siel resigned last summer.
Brown said Saiki is working to hire a contractor to conduct the assessment of the foster care system. The governor also said she will name an advisory committee comprised of legislators, provider representatives and interested community groups later this week, and the group will provide feedback to the contractor and throughout the implementation of any recommendations.
Sen. Alan Olson, R-Canby, asked whether the contractor would be able to improve Oregon’s foster care system.
Saiki, who previously worked more than two decades at the Department of Human Services, said he’s heard people say there is no silver bullet, “and I’d totally agree with that.” However, Saiki said other states have found better ways to address some of the foster care problems with which Oregon struggles.
The Capital Bureau is a collaboration between EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group.